Choose Your Own Adventure: Response or Reaction?

Countless times throughout any given day we are holding onto thoughts that say “I need something that I don’t have” or “I am here in this situation or process, and I want to be there.” Maybe it’s about acquiring a new skill or increasing your proficiency with one you already have. Maybe it’s about changing or strengthening the quality of a relationship that you’re unsatisfied with. Maybe it’s about reducing the stress or frustration you feel about other people’s behavior. When the situation you’re in presents a risk and triggers big emotions, you arrive at the tip of two diverging paths: one that indulges your propensity to react, and one that engages your ability to respond.  

The default in any situation that involves tension, alarm, or discomfort (no matter how big or small) will be to react; humans are first driven by the part of our brain that scans for danger and pushes fight, flight, freeze, and appease feelings and actions to the forefront in order to protect us.  If we don’t know how to move past that initial emotional reaction we stay in survival mode and start to inhabit our fear-based, limited perspective.  Our inner guard dog, trained to see threats, shows up and positions us to remain combative, defensive, or anxious.  It keeps us on well-worn paths of unconscious behaviors, and traps us in blame and worry stories about ourselves or others that are most likely not true. 

We start to craft a response when we are able to feel and accept our emotional reaction, and then add it to a larger set of knowledge about ourself, others, and the situation at hand.  From that bigger perspective we can shape our response further by digging deeper into the circumstances that created the situation (including our own role in it), defining desirable end results, and then choosing how we want to show up and achieve them.  What follows is our response. 

Reaction impulsively seeks protection that ultimately gets us stuck, response intentionally seeks understanding that leads to creativity and forward momentum.

The behaviors related to responding and reacting look very different when you’re in a situation that presents that gap between where you are and where you want to be.  

You’re Responding If You Are:You’re Reacting If You Are:
Strategizing to solve problemsStrategizing to prove your position
Generating possibilitiesLimiting or shutting down possibilities
Leaning into your vulnerability and taking risksMaking excuses
Connecting with people able to support or guide youIsolating yourself or connecting with commiserators
Normalizing discomfortTrying to avoid discomfort
Understanding and utilizing emotionsGetting taken on a ride by emotions
Grounded in and guided by purpose & valuesSubject to seeking external expectations & validation
Authoring your futurePlaying a prescribed role
Owning the part you played that got you hereBlaming others for what got you here
Exercising choice and agencyClaiming powerlessness and helplessness
Asking questions and sharing understandingMonologuing and getting defensive
Challenging default behaviors/thoughts/biasesPassively exhibiting default behaviors/thoughts/biases
Seeking a truth bigger than your own point of viewConvinced your truth is the truth
Adopting a student or beginner mindset Adopting an expert mindset
Seeing the situation over time and in 3DFocusing on a linear, cause-and-effect narrative
Taking a patient and mindful approachActing hastily and impetuously

Teams and individuals that are conditioned to stay trapped in reactive mode sustain environments that amplify fear, blame, and stagnancy.  Those that consistently exercise their “ability to respond” sustain environments where innovation, growth, and engagement thrive.  They are able to define a future they want to inhabit and find a way to realize it despite the natural twists, stalls, and obstacles encountered along the way.  Here’s the thing: Taking Responsibility isn’t inherently easier or harder than passively reacting, both require an investment of time and energy.  You’re going to go on an adventure either way, grow your instinct to plot the course that pays off.


What situations are you reacting in right now?  What are the first few steps you could take to shift you into a response approach? 

What situations are you responding in right now?  What did you do to get yourself into that mindset? 

Side Dish

Sometimes the main course just isn’t enough – find links here to content that rounds out the themes explored in this week’s article.

Article, 4 minute read

15 Practices for Staying on the Path of Mastery
By Brad Stulberg

Immersing yourself deeply in the process of growth and development for its own sake is a wonderful way to enrich your life.”  Yes, there are 15 practices for this.  Yes, they will all have a measurable and meaningful impact on your life if you weave them into the way you live it.  


Article, 8 minute read

This Clock Doesn’t Tell the Time…can it tell me how to spend it?
By Zahra Davidson

If you’ve ever needed a creative way to help you manage your time more intentionally (and put your focus and effort where it will make a difference), Zahra Davidson has a project for you…

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